NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees might still be in first place, but they sure don't look like a first-place team right now.
Joe Girardi keeps saying his squad needs to play better, but as with a jockey whose whip won't speed up a slow horse, the Yankees are having trouble capturing that much-needed momentum. A sluggish and quick 6-1 loss Friday night to the surging Baltimore Orioles put the Yankees a mere two games up in the American League East standings.
Without Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees lack lineup depth. They do not intimidate other teams because guys such as Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez are being asked to consistently produce at a notch higher than they are capable of at this point in their careers.
There are ugly numbers weighing on the Yankees, too. They were up 10 games on July 18. Their current two-game lead in the division is the smallest since June 22. They have lost seven of 10.
And this one is particularly vital given their next nine games are against the Orioles and Rays -- the Yankees are just 25-22 in the AL East.
"If you had told me at the end of spring training, getting ready to start the season, that we would be two games up at the start of September, I would've signed up for that," Nick Swisher said after his four-strikeout night Friday.
Maybe so, but less than six weeks ago, it looked as if September would be the time for the Yankees to sit back and set their rotation. Now, Baltimore is becoming MLB's story of the year outside of Mike Trout.
It is hard to figure out how Buck Showalter's boys are doing it, but they just keep finding ways to win. On Friday, Miguel Gonzalez dominated the Yankees' lineup, going seven strong, while Mark Reynolds, RBI-less in his previous 12 games, nailed a pair of homers to help the O's win their fifth game in seven tries at Yankee Stadium this season. They finished August with an 18-9 record.
The Yankees look old all of sudden, but that could change with a strong David Phelps outing or a timely swing of the bat Saturday.
"We need to clean up what we are doing in here and take care of what we are doing with our play," Chavez said.
On Friday, their first chance with runners in scoring position didn't come until the sixth. Gonzalez -- with pitches that were clocked at 91, 92 mph, but felt like 95, 96, according to Chavez -- denied the Yankees even a hit through the first three innings and nary a run through any of his seven.
In the sixth, Ichiro Suzuki singled and Jayson Nix walked to set up Derek Jeter, the man who has piled up the most hits of anyone in baseball this season, who nearly hit into a 5-4-3 double play before barely beating a relay to first. Swisher then struck out for the third time, and Robinson Cano fouled out to end the inning.
In the seventh, Chavez and Russell Martin put up back-to-back two-out singles. Suzuki quickly erased the chance with a fielder's choice.
The Yankees' offense is meek right now. After the first four batters, there's no one to scare opposing pitchers. And those initial four, besides Cano, are hardly Murderers Row. Jeter is a singles guy. Swisher is an excellent complementary player, but not a star. And Curtis Granderson, although a home run threat, is striking out way too much.
With Teixeira and Rodriguez out, Chavez and Ibanez become even more important. But instead of being just complementary guys, they have to produce.
Chavez has done well with Rodriguez out. Ibanez has been streaky all season and looks tired after playing more outfield than the Yankees ever intended. The 40-year-old had a big May, hitting .288 with six homers and 16 RBIs, but is batting .218 with nine homers and 36 RBIs in the other four months.
To end Friday, Ibanez struck out swinging. And after a little more than 2 1/2 hours of baseball, Girardi had to answer more questions about his team and when it will finally turn things around.
"I probably said that about two weeks ago," Girardi said on needing to improve. "We got swept in Chicago, I said, 'We need to play better.' You lose two out of three to Toronto, I said, 'You need to play better.'"
The Yankees need to play better, all right. And if they don't, starting Saturday, it will be panic time in the Bronx.